Australia's hit out with New Zealand last night was a desultory affair for most of the 55,000 that traipsed to the Melbourne Cricket Ground. It was a "farewell to the Socceroos" which we Melburnians had a nice taste of four years ago when 95,000 saw Australia host a similar friendly against the visiting Euro champs Greece before heading off to Guus-inspired glory in Germany.
But this time around, rather than spicy souvlaki, the fixture doled out flavourless mutton. Not that the visiting All-Whites weren't fair-dinkum opposition. In the first half the visitors outplayed the Aussies and held a deserved lead until well into the second half and over the 90 minutes contributed an honest open display. No, it was the performance from the home side that caused the teeth-gnashing.
Aussie Pim decided to leave out some of the injured and some of the already qualified to concentrate on the fringe players and those lacking match practice. With underwhelming results. For the first 45 minutes brought home supporters the sight of Australia failing to keep possession, failing to move forward with any zeal, and its only achievements were a series of stud marks left on opposition limbs.
Churlish Kiwi Rory Fallon had stupidly predicted an injury-ridden fixture and Aussie Vince Grella just as stupidly provided a retort. But if the more highly valued Aussie playing stock had sensed the risk of World Cup ruining tackles, the stud was on the other boot as in the space of seven minutes, Milligan, Grella and Cahill had executed a succession of agricultural swipes at the opposition. Leo Bertos of Wellington Phoenix bore the brunt of the two worst challenges, which should have drawn straight red cards for Grella and Cahill. Grella's two footed, premeditated lunge in particular was simply disgraceful. It was to the Kiwis' eternal credit that they showed the self control not to retaliate.
Australia progressed from disgraceful to depressing. Craig Moore woefully out of form at centre-back, Carney more left-footed than ever, Bresciano and Culina struggling in midfield, McDonald marooned up front. How our stocks have fallen. Yes, we were missing the dependable Wilkshire and Chipperfield, and the now less dependable Kewell and Emerton, and the lone beanpole Kennedy. But this is a squad that is older, slower, unfit, with few shining lights emerging.
After half time, on came Holman, Jedinak and others. We looked quicker, and New Zealand, tinkering with its own formation, looked less likely. We buzzed around more in midfield, and fashioned a goal for Vidosic, who was having his own struggles. And from the controversial AZ Alkmaar midfielder Holman, we saw a classic Holman performance. Plenty of buzzing about, incomplete control and poor passing. Surely at some stage Pim would give one final opportunity for Nicky Carle, who has got vision, who can pass, who can make things happen. But no. And to make matters worse, Holman pops up for a winner with the last kick of the night. Maybe that's a bit harsh on him.
Today, Pim drops Carle and McDonald. Depressing. Four years ago, palpable excitement gripped Australia's football followers. After last night, we were gripped with the almost certain prospect of first round elimination.